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GENDER BIAS INCREASES POVERTY, ENVIRONMENT WOES

If you think sex discrimination is a problem only affluent countries can afford to worry about, a report from the Worldwatch Institute brings some sobering news: Discrimination against women increases poverty and environmental damage in the developing world.

Living hand-to-mouth is a way of life for 3 billion of the world's 5.5 billion people. And for women in these subsistence economies, hard work is the only life there is.Jodi L. Jacobson, author of the Worldwatch report, cites studies detailing the typical day for women in an Indian village in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Rising at 4 a.m., they light fires, milk buffaloes, sweep floors, draw water and feed their families. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. they weed crops for less than half the amount paid to men for the same work. Since they don't earn enough to buy fuel, they then must spend time foraging for twigs, leaves and branches to build a cooking fire. Only after this chore is accomplished can they return home to cook the evening meal and complete the household chores.

All that activity amounts to three shifts of work each day - twice the number of hours the men in their village devote to supporting their families. The work might be more bearable if it led to a better life. But the women do not own the land they till, and each year they find themselves poorer and less able to provide for their families.

The resulting misery doesn't stop with women who bear the brunt of it. There is a direct correlation between the mother's income and food production - and her ability to control them - and the nutrition and health of the family's children.

A World Bank report found that in Africa, "it is not uncommon for children's nutrition to deteriorate while wristwatches, radios and bicycles are acquired by the adult male household members."

A number of factors contribute to the plight of Third World women and their families. But none is more striking than the unintended effects of well-intentioned Western aid programs that overlook the central role of women in these subsistence economies.

In many areas of the world, strategies for agricultural development have shifted land that was traditionally held in common - and available to women for growing food - into privatized plots to encourage the cultivation of cash crops.

But since women are responsible for producing food and men traditionally control cash crops, women have a harder time producing food.

Traditional patterns of rotating fields are abandoned, and women end up trying to coax poorer crops from depleted land.

(Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Baltimore Evening Sun.)